A few years ago, my Dad told me something that terrified me. I was trying to figure out what to get him for his birthday, and I suggested a few albums I thought he might like. "That's okay," he said, "I don't really need new music these days." Fair enough; we all go through phases during which we just hunker down with the stuff we already love and ignore new releases for a while. But that's not what he meant. The person most responsible for fostering my own obsession with music (and the unwieldy CD collection that comes with it) had told me that these days he just doesn't listen to music that often, and, when he does, much of the joy seems to have gone out of it. New bands, old favorites, whoever and whatever: after decades of passionate engagement with music, my Dad just didn't care that much anymore.
At the time, I felt both horror and pity. Dad was more than a little nonplussed by the development, but the nature of it was such that he wasn't really that upset. To me, it was like finding out he'd suddenly lost a limb without my noticing it. And, of course, I instantly wondered if the same thing would happen to me.
Bought a radio, then ran away forever
I'm just old enough that my first memories of music involve me sitting with an LP sleeve, reading along to whatever vinyl my dad was playing. However, I didn't get seriously into music until my seventeenth birthday, when I got OK Computer as a gift -- I always say if you're going to date yourself, date yourself in the most generationally predictable way possible. From there, I moved on to the then-nascent Internet to read up on all these bands that were impossible to find in the small Ontario town in which I grew up, and saved all my money to spend at HMV on road trips.
I started writing album reviews for my student newspaper at university, and moved on to a small-scale but tremendously fulfilling second job as a music critic after graduation, primarily contributing to the now-defunct Stylus Magazine. Although I was small potatoes compared to true professional music journalists, and I'm mostly out of the game now (for reasons that will rapidly become clear), I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. The writing, the camaraderie with other writers and fans, and the brief flashes of near-renown shaped a lot of my sense of self during those otherwise difficult early-20s years and still affects the way I see myself today.
Writing reviews meant listening to a lot of music. The Stylus archives are only semi-accessible at the moment, but a brief glance at my PopMatters staff page reminds me that even writing on an irregular basis piles up tons of records over time. Like most critics, I had a bit of anxiety around how many and what types of albums I was listening to. If I was going to issue any sort of year-end list, I felt responsible to listen to all the albums that everyone else seemed to be talking about, plus identify a few fresh finds of my own. In 2009, at the height of my efforts, I listened to 144 new releases. It was exhausting, and my annotated text files from that year indicate I deleted nearly half that music from my hard drive after little more than one listen. However, when I filled out my ballot for the Village Voice's famous Pazz & Jop poll with Doveman's The Conformist at the top, I was sure I wouldn't second-guess my choice. Haven't heard it? You should totally check out that album!
Get a haircut and a real job
Unfortunately, 2009 was also the first year since high school that I mostly didn't work. I began the year with a contract at my once and future employer, and, while it was pretty satisfying, I wasn't that sad when HR forces beyond my boss's control discontinued my contract. From the middle of March until the same company hired me back on a permanent basis at the end of November, I had plenty of time to write the odd music review here or there and listen to lots and lots of music.
I knew that going back to work would curtail the fun times; what I didn't expect was that it would nearly kill them entirely. Nothing against my day job, but I found myself working intently enough that the music I was listening to didn't really register. I'd sometimes get so busy, even listening to music was hard to fit in, let alone listening carefully enough to inspire writing. Suddenly, the end of 2010 was looming, I hadn't done half the writing I'd meant to. I had 70 new albums stacked up in a folder in my desktop, including many from labels and PR reps, but I just didn't know when I was going to find the time to listen to them. To tell the truth, I didn't really want to.
The year of the lost you
When I was writing more regularly, I was always interested in how each year's critical and popular favorites were determined as much by chance as by quality. Obviously, a good album with a lot of buzz and hype tends to be widely appreciated. But when I was looking for something to write about each week, or just trying to keep up with some fraction of the release schedule, I often wound up listening to music people weren't really raving about. For example, the only reason I ever heard the Goslings is that a friend who had the promo described it as sounding "like reverberating mud," which I apparently love. Picastro registered only when a band member sent me a very nice e-mail because she thought I would like her stuff, based on my affection for The Knife and Fever Ray. It isn't that there's no rhyme or reason for our tastes, it's just that there isn't always a coherent and obvious way to figure out where to start looking.
However, with less free time, I fell behind, and the pile of records began to seem insurmountable. For me, there are obvious rewards for randomly selecting from a huge pile of music, but I get stressed out thinking about what I'm missing. For example, discovering that the Silent League finally lived up to their potential also meant that I wouldn't have the time to listen to the Crystal Castles's second album (which I later learned is even better than their first). I didn't have the right time and mindset to devote to new music, but the music kept on coming, loading up my hard drive and overwhelming my living space. I started to feel like 2010 had given up on me, so I gave up on 2010.
There's a limit to your love
Of course I worried that I had run into the same wall my Dad had. But, after a bit of a break, Dad listens to and enjoys music these days, and so do I. The turning of the year was a hell of a relief, and my aims for 2011 are more modest: fewer writing assignments, a new disregard for year-end lists, a better sense of balance. After taking a step back, I don't feel like my critical faculties or love of music have atrophied at all. They say that athletes can only train for three weeks before having to take it easy for a while -- I guess the same is true of music fans. From the amazing output, it seems that most of my fellow IMPers have a much firmer grasp on how music serves them (rather than vice-versa) than I. So 2010 will remain a grueling reminder that I can't listen to everything, that omniscience is overrated, and that music can be just as vital and sustaining when it's part of my life rather than all of it.
On the other hand, have you heard the Triangulo de Amor Bizarro album? The new Mogwai is completely fucking awesome. And I finally got my hands on Asva's mindblowing What You Don't Know Is Frontier. Oh no, here we go again!
-- Ian Mathers, 02/16/2011